24 March 2009

The dream of a Neanderthal

A living Neanderthal. The guest of the “American Hour” is anthropologist John Hawkes

Irina Savinova, Radio Liberty

Alexander Genis: The recent news that European scientists have restored the genome of a Neanderthal made a splash among anthropologists. The most audacious of them even announced that they would undertake – under conditions of sufficient funding – to revive a living Neanderthal. It cannot be said that this plan has already been accepted by someone as a guide to action, but it caused a lot of noise.
Our correspondent Irina Savinova talks about various aspects of this perspective with John Hawks, an anthropologist and professor at the University of Wisconsin.

Irina Savinova: Scientists have decoded the Neanderthal genome. How to make a living person out of a set of genes?

John Hawkes: Or rather, how to raise a Neanderthal from the grave. 10 years ago, I would have said with confidence that this would never happen. To date, science has made significant progress. However, it cannot be said that there are no obstacles in the way of such an experiment.
First of all, the genome contains errors in the nucleotide sequence. These errors are due to the fact that the material – bone fragments – has been buried underground for a long time. This problem can be solved by repeatedly reading and fixing the sequence. Then it will be up to the creation of Neanderthal DNA, which can be done based on a template of an already known sequence: a human or a monkey. Again, the barrier is a high probability of errors and genetic incompatibility.
I don't know, maybe it will be possible to "resurrect" a Neanderthal from the dead.
But look at another aspect of these studies. The Neanderthal genome contains encrypted information about his strong musculature, about a high level of energy, because they survived in the conditions of glacial cold. The study of these factors can help medical science cope with human diseases such as muscular atrophy, for example. So, the following result is also possible: the Neanderthal will be introduced into our genome in order to improve the human breed.

Irina Savinova: But how to practically grow a body from the genome?

John Hawkes: When we create our own children, something other than the genome is also required. We need a functioning egg with proteins in the right order. There is no such egg for a Neanderthal. A donor egg is needed, and then the incompatibility problem arises. Cloning is possible on the principle that they take the genetic information of one cell and put it in another cell. There are no obstacles to this process in the case of a Neanderthal, if its chromosomes can be completely recreated. But it is not yet known whether a human or chimpanzee donor cell will match Neanderthal DNA. To answer this question, we need to continue studying the genome.

Irina Savinova: What criteria will scientists use to classify the recreated creature? Can he be considered a human being?

John Hawkes: This is a serious question of evolution. If you look at the world today, it is impossible not to notice a huge variety: appearance, behavior, types of manufactured tools are different in different places of the globe. The material history that remains after us is also diverse. If we look into the past and look at the Neanderthals, the most recent group that disappeared, we see that they are not like us, they did not behave like us, their tools were different. Yes, in other ways, but not very much. Their abilities were about the same as ours. This is a strong argument in favor of calling them people. Of course, we don't know if they could talk, in the sense that we understand it today. We can only test hypotheses based on the material history they have left us. That's why the genome is so important – it carries information that no material history gives us.

Irina Savinova: Since we and they are not so different, and we have their genes, it is appropriate to ask whether interbreeding of a human and a Neanderthal is possible – could they have children together?

John Hawkes: I can say with confidence that it was possible. If you look at the Neanderthals and the people who lived side by side with them – this could definitely be the case. Look at the mammalian species whose genetic differences are the same or deeper than those of humans and Neanderthals – they interbreed and have reproducible offspring: lions and tigers, white and brown bears, bison and livestock. Their genetic differences are much more significant than we have with Neanderthals.

Irina Savinova: When did Neanderthals and the ancestors of modern man become different from each other?

John Hawkes: 300 thousand years ago, the population of the Earth was divided, and the Neanderthals stood out in a separate group, the genetic development of which differed from the development of the human race. When asked why this happened, most point to the climate. During the ice Age, Neanderthals lived in the very north of the inhabited territories – it was not the tundra, but the southern part of Europe – but at that time the climate there was very cold. Especially for the Neanderthals, who did not have at their disposal technologies like those with which the Eskimos living in the far north are armed. Then we evaluate the types of food. It also mattered that Neanderthals hunted large mammals, and in order to hunt bison, deer, horses and rhinos, stronger skeletons were needed than Neanderthals are very different from the human race.

Irina Savinova: What is the significance of the reconstruction of the Neanderthal genome? What aspects of evolution will it shed light on?

John Hawkes: Many people do not realize what a huge amount of evidence of human evolution scientists have at their disposal. We have fragments of the remains of almost all known groups that make up the picture of human evolution. Take a well–documented group like the Neanderthals - we have hundreds of bone fragments, each of which corresponds to some part of the body. These fossils occupy two large rooms. Archaeological evidence will occupy a large building. But what we don't have is something that isn't bones or tools. We don't have anything that will tell us about their biorhythm, about their digestion, about the structure of the brain and its functioning. We don't know anything about these parts of biology, which are considered the most important today. The Neanderthal genome gives us 20,000 genes that are potentially similar to ours – that's ten times more than we have fragments of his bones.

Irina Savinova: Do you consider such experiments on reverse evolution ethical?

John Hawkes: I'm not the first and not the only one who doesn't think so. Just imagine: we have an ancient organism. It differs in many ways from the human. Over the past 10 thousand years, people have suffered a series of epidemics: malaria, yellow fever, cholera, typhus, dysentery. We will have a clone on our hands that is not immune to these diseases. And there's not much we can do to help him–we don't know if our vaccines will work in such an ancient immune system. Maybe he'll be allergic to our surroundings.
Even if the experiment is successful, this person will have to live an experimental life in complete isolation. Yes, from my point of view, this experiment will be unethical until this issue is considered and resolved.

Irina Savinova: What can he tell us about? What kind of memory will this person have?

John Hawkes: There is nothing in genes related to memory. He will have a memory like a newborn baby. He will also be ignorant of the world around him. For our children, TV is not a novelty, but 100 years ago children grew up without television. Therefore, they differ even biologically from us. We have changed the environment and thereby changed the person. A Neanderthal who finds himself in our environment will adapt to it like a child, but we do not know what his mechanism of knowledge accumulation is. We don't know if he is able to integrate into the environment like our children. By the way, our children do it in different ways: they learn to speak, walk, and read at different speeds.

Irina Savinova: Is religion the defining difference between humans and animals?

John Hawkes: Religion is one of the so–called anthropological universals. It is inherent in absolutely all cultures of the world. Let's ask ourselves why it exists and what is so interesting about it. Anthropologists have several answers, but there is no real consensus. The answer contains two main ideas. The first is that religion exists as an effect of the natural transformation of a person into a linguistically cultural being trying to know and explain the world around him and attracting the supernatural to help. Another idea is that religion exists because it is valuable to people. It is a mechanism by which people cooperate with their forces, communicate and establish moral laws. This is all valuable for society. Religion explains the world through words. In order to understand it, you need to be able to speak and read. And this is how we differ from animals. But science also distinguishes us from animals. I think what really distinguishes us from animals is culture. Communicate with others and exchange ideas.

Irina Savinova: Let's assume that the experiment of recreating a Neanderthal was successful. Generated... who, what should I call him?

John Hawkes: You know, it's interesting. I say "interesting" because when the Europeans discovered new lands, they had the same problem: whether to consider the people they met as people. This is a more serious problem than it seems. And it leads to the problem of creating the world. You have arrived on novaya Zemlya, people are meeting you there. How did they get there, who created them? A very long time ago, Pope Julian II seems to have approved the status of aborigines in the newly discovered lands, saying that they are of the same origin as people. And here is a parallel: you are meeting with a new kind of organism. How to integrate it into your system of understanding what a person is? In the case of Neanderthals, the proof of belonging will be contained in their genetics. Did they behave like people? Archaeology confirms this. Therefore, I can say: this person came from an ancient group that no longer exists. But it is, nevertheless, a personality.

Portal "Eternal youth" www.vechnayamolodost.ru24.03.2009

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